Art

The Challenge of Making a Permanent Exhibit About Mercurial New York

The Museum of the City of New York opens its first permanent exhibition, an ambitious multimedia journey through 400 years of the city’s turbulent history.

New York At its Core
Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, maquette for the Statue of Liberty (1870), terracotta (courtesy Museum of the City of New York Gift of Estella Cameron Silo in memory of her husband, James Patrick Silo)

In New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), an 18th-century ankle cuff unearthed in Manhattan’s Hanover Square is installed alongside a glimmering 1770 silver coffeepot. Not everyone arrived in New York City by choice, nor did they necessarily arrive at all. Nearby is a 17th-century Lenape war club, newly returned to the city after centuries in Sweden.

New York at Its Core opened November 18, filling 8,000 square feet of the MCNY first floor. It’s the first permanent exhibition at the museum, and the culmination of five years of research, as well as a decade-long $100 million renovation project. While the institution on the northeastern corner of Central Park is not geographically on the beaten tourist path, nor that of many New Yorkers, New York at Its Core is an ambitious experience that aims to be an accessible introduction to the inner core of the Big Apple. There is in fact an apple corer, a gargantuan early 20th-century metal device on loan from the collection of the Russ & Daughters appetizing store, as immigrant entrepreneur Joel Russ featured apples in his herring salad. Each of the roughly 450 artifacts on view, dating from Henry Hudson’s voyage in 1609 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, is a fragment of a greater personal timeline in New York.

Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Ankle cuff from the 18th century unearthed in Manhattan’s Hanover Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York At its Core
Joseph Wheeler Appleton, model of Halve Maen (Half Moon) (before 1934) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Norton Merriman, Theodore Roosevelt Pelt, Rodney W. Williams, L. Gordon Hammersley, Herbert L. Satterlee, and the Ship Model Society)

“Each object is an entry point into a whole thread that relates to the city’s history, and all of these threads together add up to a whole that begins to capture what New York is about,” Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator at MCNY, told Hyperallergic. “We believe New York is too multifaceted to ingest in a quick 20 minute run through an exhibition. We wanted to create something that would reward multiple visits, but still be appreciated with a single visit. Our goal is for people to come away having better understood New York.”

Part of that understanding isn’t just about the past, but what’s to come. The biggest of the exhibition’s three galleries is a flexible space called the Future City Lab, concentrating on the next 50 years of the city. A huge digital map, touchscreens, and an interactive streetscape-augmenting game fill the Lab, with the gallery design allowing for new data on population, climate change, and urban planning to update and alter the displays.

Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the two galleries devoted to history, you can also find these multimedia aspects. A parade of silhouettes, and freestanding totems, introduce visitors to 75 individuals that influenced the city, including artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, anarchist Emma Goldman, writer and activist Wong Chin Foo, Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner, founding father Alexander Hamilton, poet Walt Whitman, hip-hop artist Jay Z, and a beaver, whose fur made for a very significant industry in the colonial era.

Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Milton Glaser’s “I (Heart) New York” concept sketch from 1976 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“It was a humbling and daunting and exciting task to think about how to instill the story of New York into our space, although obviously the complexity of New York is something you could spend a lifetime delving into and not get to the bottom of it,” Henry said. “For us, it was important to have a point of view and a lens through which to look at this story. Our question is what makes New York New York, and we boil it down to four words: money, density, diversity, and creativity.”

And all of these people and moments are basically presented on the same plane, even calamities like the September 11 attacks or the AIDS crisis, while addressed and explored, are not enshrined. Instead every broader event is distilled through a component of a human story. For example, rather than a didactic explanation of Boss Tweed’s catastrophic corruption, you can gaze at the glimmer of his T-shaped diamond cufflinks, bought with city money.

New York At its Core
Diamond, onyx, and gold cuff links owned by William M. “Boss” Tweed (1868) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York, gift of Colonel and Mrs. LeRoy Barton)

Calvert Vaux’s 1865 field drafting set, used to design landscapes like Central Park, is positioned by fragments of glass, pottery, and a button exhumed from the remains of Seneca Village, the African-American enclave displaced by the Manhattan greenspace. A small Halvah tin from the Sahadi family recalls the Little Syria neighborhood that thrived in the future site of the World Trade Center. There are no generic objects, each is specific to a person in the place that is New York City. And each emphasizes how there is no single story of New York, yet it’s that diversity, whether religious, ethnic, or economic, that makes the fertile seeds of a city that continues to grow.

Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York At its Core
Third Avenue Elevated railway destination sign (1900) (courtesy Museum of the City of New York Gift of Mrs. J. Clyne)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, with an 1894 issue of “Chinese News” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Objects excavated in Lower Manhattan, including a Chinese porcelain dish sherd from the 17th century, a Felt tile fragment, and Native American ceramic sherds from the 14th-17th century (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Early 20th-century commercial artifacts, including Joel Russ’s apple peeler and corer at left (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Socialist ephemera from the 1910s (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, including the 1900 ceremonial shovel designed by Tiffany & Company used to break ground for the city’s first subway (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The first New York City subway ticket from 1904 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, with Jackson Pollock’s “Free Form” (1946), oil on canvas; and a paint can, mixer, and brush used by Pollock in the 1950s (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
New York At its Core
Badges owned by Robert Moses, with case: “Commissioner, Department of Parks, City of New York” (left) and “Chairman, Triborough Bridge Authority” (1924-1960) (courtes Museum of the City of New York, gift of Mary and Helen O’Sullivan)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, including a baseball signed by Jackie Robinson and Tom Brown (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, with Robert Indiana’s “Orb” (1960) sculpture at right (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core, with Bruno Lucchesi’s “Subway #1” (1984-85) sculpture at left, and a vest worn by a member of the 1970s South Bronx youth gang the Savage Nomads at right (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of New York at Its Core at the Museum of the City of New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York at Its Core is now open at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, East Harlem, Manhattan).

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